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Of course your Emma is different: That's what all the Jennifer parents thought, too

Emma is still the most popular newborn girl's name, despite our stated desires for the most unique baby brands


Mary Elizabeth Williams
December 18, 2015 9:19PM (UTC)

Are you an expectant parent-to-be? Do your plans for 2016 include welcoming a new human to the planet? Congratulations. Congratulations on your baby named Emma. This week Sanford Health released its annual list of most popular baby names, and in news that will come as zero surprise to anyone who spends any time around children, Emma and Jackson dominated the list. Also holding strong have been Ava, Addison and Evelyn for girls, and Oliver, Connor and Mason for boys. We know.

We like to think we're special — and we certainly like to think our babies are. Yet all you have to do is look at patterns in what we decide our children are going answer to for the rest of their lives to see that we're not so original after all. Social Security's list of top five girl names has boasted either Emily or Emma since 1993. Emily was number one for an impressive eleven years, only to be unseated by Emma in 2008.

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It's not that it isn't a lovely name. You don't have to convince me — I am a devoted Jane Austen fan. I know several wonderful Emmas, and my daughters seem to know even more. I also admit I'm not exactly one to talk about originality — my born-in-Brooklyn-in-the-2000s daughters bear the names Lucy and Beatrice, which means they fit right in with all the Olivias and Sophias and Liams and Noahs in their classes. In my world, putting together a guest list for birthday party looks like a casting call for goddamn "Downton Abbey." I am, furthermore, a Gen Xer, which means in turn that every woman I know is named either Jennifer or Lisa, and every single man I know is named Mike. Because every generation, faced with the infinite array of possibilities of names to give its children, tends to lean comfortably into a small pool of what's familiar and prevailing.

It's true that having a number one name in 2015 doesn't mean what it did in 1915, or even 1955. As LiveScience noted in 2013, the percent of the population that holds even a hugely popular contemporary name is considerably smaller than it was in decades past, when basically everybody was just named their kids John and didn't give a crap, and aspirational naming wasn't a thing.

The quest for originality remains largely illusory. As the Atlantic reported in 2012, a big part of why my own once chart-dominating name has in recent years fallen straight off the popularity cliff -- a precipitous 94 percent dip since 1961 -- is because it's no longer perceived as unique. But if you want give your baby a name surely no one else in the maternity ward will have, may I recommend Mary, which doesn't even make the cut for BabyCenter's top 100? Or Elizabeth, which lags at 40?  Give your son the near-extinct moniker Gary; that'll really blow people's minds.

But you probably won't, because those names just somehow don't sound right any more. They don't sound special, even though they're not actually popular.

The lesson of Emma is that it's okay. It's okay to embrace nice things that everybody else does, even while maintaining the notion that they're yours alone. It's okay to joke about a desperate caffeine or chocolate addiction, as if that's your special quirky thing. It's okay to be hyped for "Star Wars," like "Star Wars" resonates for you in a way that somehow doesn't make it the most successful, moneymaking movie series of all time. And it's okay to name your baby Emma, because she's your one-of-a-kind Emma. Just make sure to label her last name on everything, because I promise there will be six other little girls whose parents had the exact same idea in her class when she gets to preschool.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Baby Names Emma Parenting Social Security

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